People who want to work in the mental health field may be unsure of the similarities and differences between psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists. While psychiatrists are medical doctors able to issue prescriptions and psychologists often work in tandem with these professionals to ensure patients receive both psychotherapy and medical treatment, “therapist” is an overarching term for individuals who work with patients to clarify their feelings, mediate tense situations, and provide guidance for life’s decisions. Therapists covered in this guide include individuals who work in mental health or marriage and family therapy. Keep reading to learn about educational requirements as well as what to expect in terms of salary and job growth in the coming years.
Therapists are classified as mental health professionals; as such, they must complete significant education and training to receive a license to practice. At minimum, most therapists hold a master’s degree and have completed a substantial amount of supervised clinical hours before ever independently seeing a client. Their time in school equips them with the skills and tools needed to assess clients, listen to their troubles, and apply relevant and appropriate treatment methods to a variety of emotional and mental problems.
Therapists may elect to work with many different parts of the population throughout their careers, and specialization areas for them abound. Whether serving military families going through the emotions of another deployment or a couple grieving the loss of a child, therapists are empathetic yet highly professional individuals who help their clients deal with mental and emotional issues arising from a variety of life events. They may choose to go into private practice or serve on a team of other therapists and mental health professionals. Regardless of their setting, those in the field are characterized by their ability to provide thoughtful, constructive therapeutic services.
The median salary for mental health counselors and marriage and family counselors is $48,600, with those in the top brackets of the profession commanding salaries of nearly $82,000 annually. Depending on the state where a therapist plans to practice, these numbers can be higher or lower. The map below shows salary figures for the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentiles in each state.
Roles for therapists are growing much faster than the overall national average for jobs, with 31,400 roles – or a 19 percent increase in the field – expected to be added between 2014 and 2024. Use the graph below to see how your state stacks up against these national figures.
While students applying to master’s level programs are encouraged to have certain prerequisites completed before applying, students at the baccalaureate level may elect to study numerous different disciplines. Regardless of the major they choose, courses in areas of introductory psychology, behavioral disorders, and human development should be incorporated when feasible. Otherwise, they’ll need to take additional classes before applying to advanced programs.
Grades are also important for master’s level programs, so baccalaureate students should be vigilant about maintaining high GPAs – particularly in classes relevant to future studies.
Options for study at the master’s level tend to be concentrated in programs related to mental health or family and marriage therapy. As discussed in the previous section, these degrees tend to have some prerequisites but they are not as extensive as those required for clinical psychology or psychiatry programs.
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, individuals aspiring to work in this field have three paths to choose from to become qualified:
Either as part of a degree program or a post-degree fellowship, completing supervised clinical experience is a requirement for future licensure. These opportunities – typically called residencies or internships – allow graduates to apply the theoretical knowledge gained from coursework to real-world scenarios requiring a competent and professional therapist. Depending on the state where a therapist-in-training hopes to be licensed, mandated supervised experience typically totals between 2,000 and 4,000 hours.
Once supervised hours are completed, the only thing standing between an individual and their ability to see clients is being licensed. Those who want to work as mental health counselors should contact the National Board for Certified Counselors to learn about requirements in their state, while future marriage and family therapists can find more information through the Association of Marital and Family Regulatory Boards. While requirements vary based on an individual state’s requirements, some of steps students commonly must take include:
Whether seeking a masters or doctoral degree, or a postsecondary certification, this powerful search tool can help narrow options by aggregating programs based on cost, location, and available specializations.
Psychology degrees at the undergraduate level immerse students in foundational topics within the discipline, including research methods, behavioral disorders, developmental theories, and frameworks related to social, cultural and clinical care. Social science coursework factors heavily into the curriculum, and graduates are well prepared for the topics they will encounter in advanced therapy degree programs. Common courses may include psychobiology and neuroscience; mind, brain and behavior; thinking and decision making; and memory and stress.
Sometimes offered as a dual program incorporating human services topics, this interdisciplinary degree introduces students to topics relating to human development across the lifespan, various methodologies used in providing counsel to patients from different backgrounds, and the cultural, social and relational factors affecting human relationships. Some of the courses students may expect to take include case management and interviewing techniques; group dynamics in therapy; theories of counseling; and multiculturalism in approaches to counseling.
Amount of time Two to three years
Completion of coursework, a culminating project or thesis, and supervised experience.
This program was designed to provide students who already hold a bachelor’s degree with the education and experience they need to become a licensed therapist.
Students who want to focus their efforts in counseling individuals who are seeking guidance within their marriage or family.
Amount of time Two to three years
Completion of required coursework alongside an internship, practicum, and possible thesis.
This program provides a wider spectrum of areas graduates may find work, as they are qualified to support and provide guidance to individuals experiencing a range of mental health issues.
Students who want to gain graduate qualifications but aren’t ready to specialize in a particular area.
Amount of time 12 to 18 months
Approximately 18 credits worth of coursework and a possible capstone project
Unlike degree programs, this certificate is for students who have already completed general coursework in therapy. All classes within this program are focused on issues related to marriage and family therapy.
Students who have already completed a graduate course related to therapy or counseling who want to concentrate their skills in serving married couples and families.
Amount of time Three to five years
Aside from coursework, students complete both a practicum and an internship. They also research and write a dissertation about a topic within their area of interest in the field of therapy.
As the highest degree level available, completing a PhD ensures students have a depth of knowledge unsurpassed by other professionals in the field.
Individuals who want to go into teaching or research roles, or high-level executive positions.
Before being able to help others better understand their beliefs and attitudes, students must first be able to evaluate their own. This course calls on learners to take stock of values and assumptions that may affect how they interact with clients while also digging into behavioral observations and personal reflections.
This course provides an overview of development across the lifespan and how behaviors shift throughout time. Some of the factors that affect development are also studied, including genetics, environment, diversity, and surroundings.
Therapists often provide guidance to their patients through group sessions, especially when sorting out family and marriage issues where multiple individuals are involved. This course teaches students how to create a structured setting where every person feels heard and valued.
Issues of intimacy, gender, sexual orientation and performance are common topics within marriage counseling, and this course introduces students to methods for encouraging helpful and positive discussion around such delicate topics.
When faced with crises or trauma, individuals respond differently based on myriad personal and historical factors. This class helps students understand different types of responses and how to facilitate dialogue between individuals, families and couples who have experienced a traumatic event.
Within the bounds of mental health or family and marriage therapy, numerous opportunities exist to concentrate knowledge and skills and leverage them into a niche career. Some of the most prevalent academic and career concentrations available are highlighted below.
Concentrating a career in child and adolescent therapy allows professionals to provide informed guidance and support to young people when they need it most. With a toolbox of effective assessment techniques and significant training in therapeutic theories across stages of growth, child and adolescent therapists are able to provide tailored support in ways that befit their clients’ needs at a specific age.
Pursing a career in general family therapy opens up career prospects spanning across generations and relating to countless encounters experienced by families. Whether supporting couples through infertility issues, counseling parents on behavioral disorders in their children, or providing therapeutic treatments for whole families grieving the loss of a loved one, general family therapists are supportive and compassionate professionals with the education and training necessary to provide guidance through many different seasons of life.
Professional therapists specializing in couples counseling may see their clients individually, together, or a mix of both. Whether serving those who are married, planning to be married, or dating, couples therapists use a range of therapeutic modalities and group therapy tools to help partners communicate more effectively with one another and address any issues in their relationship. In addition to time spent with the therapist, couples are often given homework or tasks they must complete together in order to encourage understanding or reconciliation.
With an awareness of how unresolved pain and thoughts related to trauma and crisis can lead to lifelong medical, psychological, and social issues, these therapists work with individuals, couples, and families to address unresolved issues. Crisis intervention is a large responsibility in this position, and therapists must be able to step in and provide guidance at times when family members are reeling from a traumatic event. Clients may include those struggling with depression or individuals who have been victims of abuse.
Tasked with supporting military families during pivotal moments of transition, loss, deployment or relocation, military family therapists are empathetic yet strong professionals who provide emotional support. They must thoroughly understand the culture and lifestyle surrounding the military and possess extensive knowledge of common emotional and mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether working directly with a soldier or providing encouragement and guidance to their families, these professionals are vital members of the support system.
Individuals seek out therapists when life simply isn’t going as they imagined. One of the most important qualities a therapist can have is an empathetic nature and a sense of compassion to help clients see that they recognize what the patient is experiencing.
The best therapists are those who know how to ask the right questions at the right time, and are capable of communicating with many different types of people. Being able to make clients feel at ease with words is also highly important.
Before a therapist can provide guidance to a client, they must first understand what they are going through and why something is happening to them. Being able to discern other factors affecting a person’s emotional and mental health through interviews and assessments is critical.
Therapists generally have many different clients they serve, so being able to keep their files in order – especially when it comes to insurance payments – is a skill they should learn early in their careers.
Aside from educational and licensing requirements, there are numerous certifications a therapist may choose to complete if they want to further specialize their knowledge. A few different types available include:
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
If you’re interested in how to become a police officer, you might also be interested in related professions. Working as a correctional officer, EMT or paramedic, firefighter, probation officer, security guard, gaming surveillance officer, game warden or firefighter might be on your radar. If that’s the case, you can peruse the list of related occupations below, which includes average salaries:
What you earn depends on where you live, including the region, state or city. To help determine what you can expect to make in your particular area, our handy salary comparison tool can help.
AAMFT currently represents more than 50,000 marriage and family therapists and provides them with a wide range of services. These include opportunities for continuing education, webinars, conferences, job support, licensing information, and fellowships.
Since 1967, AASECT has worked with sexual educators, counselors, and therapists to help them build their practice through certification, education, community initiatives, and opportunities to join together and learn.
Since 1982, APT has encouraged mental health professionals to use the power of play when communicating with their patients – particularly children. Benefits of membership include access to publications within the field, education and training opportunities, and an annual conference.
IACT seeks to connect professionals specializing in the healing arts both to one another and to valuable resources in the field. Benefits of membership include a virtual library, an annual conference, and multiple opportunities for training.
For close to 30 years, IFTA has worked with family therapists throughout the world to help them develop competencies and connect with others in the field. Members enjoy a range of helpful services, including access to publications, details on accreditation services, and an annual conference.